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USC Target of Charges Over Radioactivity

March 13, 1987|LARRY B. STAMMER and LEE DYE | Times Staff Writers

A 179-count criminal complaint charging USC and 10 of its researchers with violating state laws regulating the use of radioactive materials was filed Thursday in Los Angeles Municipal Court by City Atty. James K. Hahn.

Decrying what he called "a pattern of incredibly cavalier conduct," Hahn said the misdemeanor charges include the failure to check for leaks of radioactivity from small capsules of Plutonium-238 and Cesium-137 and other materials and the failure to determine whether researchers and others had been overexposed to Iodine-125 and Iodine-131.

The criminal complaint--the first of its kind ever filed against a major research facility in California--followed inspections by the state Department of Health Services at USC's Health Science Campus and its Norris Cancer Hospital at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

USC was named in 148 violations on the Health Science Campus, as well as the Norris Cancer Hospital, where patients receive radiation therapy. The number of charges against individual researchers varied from one to 21.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. The inspections were conducted last Nov. 10-14 and Jan. 20-22 of this year.

Dr. John Hisserich, vice president for medical affairs, said USC will release a statement today but would not comment before then.

The problems at USC date back to the early 1970s, and in 1981 the university was prohibited from conducting research involving radioactive materials after it was cited for 346 violations of California Radiation Control Regulations; the violations were handled administratively but no criminal charges were filed. It won back its authorization in March of 1982, but continued to violate regulations, according to Deputy City Atty. Gwendolyn Irby, who is handling the case.

On Jan. 29 of this year, at the state's urging, USC voluntarily suspended its research with radioactive iodine one week after the state's last inspection, which discovered widespread violations. USC has applied to have that permission reinstated. The reinstatement could come in several days, according to Gordon Stelling, one of the state inspectors.

Most of the violations cited Thursday consisted of inadequate training and failure to examine personnel for radiation exposure, but inspectors also found evidence of carelessness in the handling of these dangerous materials.

Exams Omitted

No one has displayed any symptoms of radiation sickness, but investigators said it is unknown whether anyone was overexposed because required examinations were not conducted.

"In one instance, an investigator found research personnel eating their lunch in a room containing unsealed radioactive materials and apparently oblivious to the potential danger," Hahn said.

Researchers were also accused of failing to conduct tests to determine the radiation contamination in a room occupied by a patient receiving dosages of radioactive iodine as a treatment for cancer, he added.

In another case, one of the researchers, Dr. Walter Wolf, concealed the fact that he had illegally transferred radioactive iodine to the County-USC Medical Center to prevent it from being confiscated by state inspectors, according to Hahn and Irby. The transfer was discovered Feb. 2 when County-USC Hospital alerted the state because the hospital is not authorized to have the iodine, Irby said.

Researchers Listed

The researchers and the number of counts each is charged with are: Dr. Peter Vogt, chairman of the department of microbiology, 21; Dr. Michael Lai, professor of microbiology, 1; Dr. Robert Nakamura, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, 15; Dr. Gunther Dennert, associate professor of microbiology, 2; Dr. R. E. K. Fournier, associate professor of microbiology, 2; Dr. Joseph Landolph, associate professor of microbiology, 3; Dr. Daniel Levy, professor of biochemistry, 15; Dr. Robert Maxson, assistant professor of biochemistry, 2; Dr. Frederick Singer, professor of medicine, 10, and Dr. Wolf, professor of pharmacology, 7.

State and county officials said it is not uncommon for inspectors to find some violations during any inspection of a facility licensed to use radioactive materials, but what set USC apart was the scope of the problem.

Al Fergerson, head of radiation management for Los Angeles County, said that "when you get large numbers and it's widespread, then you have problems with the basic failure of the program."

The control of radioactive substances is subject to federal law, but in California the state enforces the regulations under an agreement with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Interviews, Record Check

Stelling, the state Department of Health Services official who conducted the last two inspections of USC, said the inspection consists mainly of interviews with participants "to see if they have been properly trained" and a search to see if records have been maintained.

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